I called my son’s name once more, hoping my shaky voice didn’t expose the panic rising in my chest, stealing my breath away. My heart felt like a tambourine banging against my ribs, futile alarm bells that no one heard but me. I didn’t want to scare my son but I also didn’t want to alert a potential predator lurking in the store. I didn’t want to broadcast that my young son was away from my protective arms, easy prey to be snatched up or lured away.
I ran up the aisle of washers and driers, nearly colliding with my husband as he rounded the corner. “Nothing?” I whispered, a desperate plea for him to contradict the obvious – he was clearly alone. He shook his head and kept moving, his sharp eyes darting up and down, side to side. He was scared, too.
I stopped moving, weighing my options. Should I alert the store manager so they could close down all possible escape routes? Should I call 911? Should I give up the pretense of calm that I hoped would convince me that nothing terrible had happened, and scream?
“I got him!” Paul yelled.
I let out my breath and ran in the direction of his voice. My son looked up at me, oblivious that I thought my world had ended. I reached down and pulled him toward me, unable to hold back my tears any longer. Still, I tried to hide them from him. I wanted to shield him from the fear and danger and sadness in the world. For a few fleeting moments that felt like an eternity, I was helpless to protect my son.
What if those moments stretched into days and months?
Over 3 months ago the United States began systematically separating parents and children seeking asylum. Thankfully, this inhumane policy was soon reversed after Americans expressed their outrage. Yet the July 25th deadline for reunification came and went with 559 children still not reunited with their parents. 386 of these children belonged to parents who have already been deported (without their children!) and 26 had no contact information. How this can even happen when my cell phone can tell me exactly where I parked my car without my even requesting it?
I remember so clearly the terror of my brief separation from my son in the busy department store even though it was nearly two decades ago. I can only begin to imagine what it might be like for a mother to have her child forcibly taken from her arms – and how much more terrifying for this to happen in a foreign country, one where I might not speak the language or know the laws.
I try to imagine the amount of desperation that would compel me to leave my country, dragging my hungry and frightened sons in tow for weeks on end. I imagine my exhausted relief when we’d finally made it to the country I hoped would take us in for asylum. Surely any humane country would have compassion for my dangerous plight with young children. Surely they’d want to help us.
But what would I do if instead of welcoming us with open arms, we were met with angry words? If the children that I’d fought so hard to protect were torn crying from my arms? If I was told (as some mothers have reported) that my children would be put up for adoption? Suddenly the terror of my situation would become real. Who would take care of my children in this country of heated anti-immigration sentiment and racial unrest? Who but their mother knew their food preferences, their allergies, their medical problems or even how they liked to be tucked into bed? Who would hold them and rock them and protect them? Could I put on a strong front and smile and wave at my children as they disappeared from my sight so that they wouldn’t become frightened by my horror?
And these children weren’t just taken away to a room down the hall. Some were shipped across the country with no idea where they were going or what happened to their parents. What is the message America is sending? “Give me your tired, hungry, poor, yearning to breathe free” so that we can detain and humiliate them. So we can deport them back to their impoverished, war-torn countries. Sometimes without their children (who we may have misplaced).
It’s one thing to impose a travel ban and deny entry to desperate people based solely on the country they happened to be born into. It’s another thing to detain as criminals those who’ve already arrived, risking their lives seeking asylum from violence and war. I’d argue that the refugees who make it across our borders should be hailed as heroes, not criminals. These parents have sacrificed everything to bring their children to “safety.” I hope that if my own sons were starving or threatened by violence that I’d have the courage to scoop them up and leave. I can’t even imagine the sense of urgency if I were raising daughters.
Aside from being a violation of human rights, separating children from their parents causes emotional trauma that will be devastating for years, if not a lifetime. As a mother I am heartbroken, but as a doctor I am outraged. I know the effects of toxic stress and trauma on children. Beyond even the obvious mental health risks known to be associated with toxic stress (including suicide and substance abuse) children are at increased the risk for many deadly diseases. It shortens life expectancy, not by months but by decades. We’re doing a lot more than just disrupting family units. We’re potentially destroying lives.
There is another issue that cuts to the heart of why this is so distressing to me as a doctor. Doctors commit to caring for all who seek their services, regardless of socioeconomic status, race or religion. A doctor’s office (or hospital) is one of the few places where both the working poor and the wealthy often occupy the same space in the waiting room. A hospital holds black and white, Muslim and Jew, gay and straight – sometimes in the same room. When we segregate and separate we lose the chance to face our fears about “others.” We lose the opportunity to marvel at our shared humanity.
Atul Gawande, surgeon and public-health researcher, spoke eloquently of the risk of excluding others in a commencement address at U.C.L.A. Medical School in June. He spoke about a foundational principle of medicine – that all lives are of equal worth. He admitted that while doctors don’t always live up to that principle, they are ashamed when people are denied treatment or given different treatment because of poverty, race, sex or lack of connections.
We’ve divided the world into us versus them—an ever-shrinking population of good people against bad ones. But it’s not a dichotomy. People can be doers of good in many circumstances. And they can be doers of bad in others. It’s true of all of us. We are not sufficiently described by the best thing we have ever done, nor are we sufficiently described by the worst thing we have ever done. We are all of it.
Regarding people as having lives of equal worth means recognizing each as having a common core of humanity. Without being open to their humanity, it is impossible to provide good care to people—to insure, for instance, that you’ve given them enough anesthetic before doing a procedure. To see their humanity, you must put yourself in their shoes. That requires a willingness to ask people what it’s like in those shoes. It requires curiosity about others and the world beyond your boarding zone.
We are in a dangerous moment because every kind of curiosity is under attack—scientific curiosity, journalistic curiosity, artistic curiosity, cultural curiosity. This is what happens when the abiding emotions have become anger and fear. Underneath that anger and fear are often legitimate feelings of being ignored and unheard—a sense, for many, that others don’t care what it’s like in their shoes. So why offer curiosity to anyone else?
Once we lose the desire to understand—to be surprised, to listen and bear witness—we lose our humanity. Among the most important capacities that you take with you today is your curiosity. You must guard it, for curiosity is the beginning of empathy. When others say that someone is evil or crazy, or even a hero or an angel, they are usually trying to shut off curiosity. Don’t let them. We are all capable of heroic and of evil things. No one and nothing that you encounter in your life and career will be simply heroic or evil. Virtue is a capacity. It can always be lost or gained. That potential is why all of our lives are of equal worth.
All of our lives are of equal worth.
Exclusionary policies are not new in our country, but where they were previously partially disguised (Jim Crow) they are now openly promoted by the rallying cry of a leadership calling for a wall. We often don’t even treat our own citizens well – from racial profiling (jails disproportionately filled with black youth) to banning silent protests (taking a knee) and discrediting the voices of the press (who are supposed to keep us informed) and anyone else who opposes a hateful agenda. We’ve become a nation afraid to talk to our neighbors for fear the conversation will not be civil.
Hate isn’t the answer. Exclusion isn’t the answer. We aren’t a strong country by living separate lives in isolation. We’re strong when we join together and help one another and stand up for and speak out for what is right.
As a doctor, I made a promise to care for any person who came through my office door. This wasn’t a difficult vow for me to make because I do believe that all lives are of equal worth. I also pledged to do no harm, a sentiment I think everyone should embrace. This includes preventing harm when possible. It also includes not knowingly standing by when others do harm.
As a family doctor in rural New York, I feel helpless to protect the mental or physical health of families torn apart while seeking asylum in my country, I do, however, understand the devastating health risks of their prolonged trauma. The least I can do is give these families my voice in opposition.